Umdloti mother of two, Vanessa Clarke helps us decode food labels


Umdloti mother of two, Vanessa Clarke, has taken it upon herself to help North Coast parents decode food products. How? By getting back to the basics of foods, understanding what is in our food, portion sizes, ingredients, false food claims and looking at various brands and products to find suitable options for families. And all of this is done in the form of a tour, with Vanessa, through your local supermarket.

“Healthy eating starts way before we cook or eat the food. It begins in the supermarket when we start making healthier food choices. Supermarkets can be overwhelming with new products constantly on the market, good marketing strategies, new nutrition trends and diets! Apart from this, many parents lead very busy, very stressful lives and knowing what and how to feed their children can be confusing and stressful.”

Better understanding the task of reading food labels, Vanessa says, will help parents know for certain what they are feeding their families.

It was her love for food and science that lead to Vanessa choosing a career as a dietitian. She lived in the UK, where she gained experience as a dietitian, before returning to South Africa. It was in the UK, she says, that her passion for childhood nutrition was born.

After starting her own parenting journey as mom to her now two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Emily and one-year-old son, Kade, Vanessa decided to focus her practice mainly on families and young children.

Vanessa loves making nutrition practical and easy to understand by providing nutritional support on a number of conditions such as fussy eating, constipation, introducing solids, ADHD, allergies, eating disorders and childhood obesity.

Top tips for reading food labels:

Check the back
Firstly, don’t rely on the claims on the front of the package. Claims and images can often be misleading. The best information about a product is always found on the back or side of the product where the ingredients list and nutritional nutritional table is.

Check the ingredients list first
The ingredients list is the best place to start when looking at a food label. Ingredients are listed in order of descending mass so the first ingredient is found the most in the product. For example, in some brands of Crunchies, sugar is listed before oats, which tells us that there is more sugar than oats in those Crunchies. So probably not the best choice! Some ingredients lists show you a percentage as well, so for example, you might find a cranberry and oat cereal bar in the ingredients list you see there is actually only two percent of cranberries in the product.

Aim for fewer ingredients
It is always best to try to eat foods as close to their natural state as possible. Avoid heavily processed foods and choose products that don’t have loads of ingredients (these are often full of sugars, fats and salt). Aim for products with only one or a couple of ingredients.

Sugar rule
One of my rules of thumb is that if sugar is in the first three ingredients then rather choose another product. Remember, there are several different names for sugar, some of which include glucose, dextrose, sucrose, invert syrup, maltodextrin, syrup, cane sugar or corn syrup.

Compare per 100g
Comparing different products helps one to make a healthier decision in the supermarket. When comparing different products or brands, it is always best to compare product A with product B per 100g serving and not the serving size for the product. This provides a constant. Serving sizes often differ between brands. 

There are different types of sugar
When looking at how much sugar is in a product, always look for the heading ‘of which sugar’. It is usually written under carbohydrates. This indicates all the sugar that exists in a product. Ideally, you would like to consume foods in your household that have no sugar or less than 5g of sugar per 100g. Be mindful that there are different types of sugar and food items like yoghurt or fruit contain natural sugar. Natural sugar can increase the total sugar content of a product, so always refer back to ingredients list to see where sugar is coming from. For example, yoghurt usually contains about 5g of sugar per 100g, even if they are unsweetened and contain added sugar – this is because yoghurt contains lactose, a natural milk sugar.

Details: Contact Vanessa to book onto any of her workshops or a private consult: 0791225938, [email protected]. Vanessa will be opening a consulting room in the rooms of paediatrician Dr Stephanie Maingard in the Umhlanga medical centre next to Umhlanga hospital.

Text: Monique De Villiers-Delport